The Fall is the fictional, first person confession of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a Parisian expatriate. Jean-Baptiste used to be a hotshot defense lawyer, but suddenly realized his life was hypocritical and now lives out his days in a seedy bar in Amsterdam. The novel puts you in the center of the action (not unlike those "Choose Your Own Adventure " books) because Jean-Baptiste talks to you while you’re sitting by him in said seedy bar.
But The Fall is famous for more than its interesting narrative technique. For one, it was written by Albert Camus, a French thinker known for his philosophy of the absurd, a close cousin to existentialism, and his frenemy status with Jean-Paul Sartre, another French philosopher of the mid-1900s. (Note that throughout his life Camus maintained that he was not an existentialist.) Now, Camus is most famous for three big novels. The first is The Stranger, published in 1942, which tells the story of a detached, emotionless man convicted of murder, who finds existential freedom while in prison awaiting his death. The second is The Plague, in 1947, which revolves around an outbreak of the bubonic plague in an Algerian town, and the struggle of its citizens to deal with human suffering. And of course, the third is The Fall, in 1956, published shortly before Camus was awarded the 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature. Camus died only three years afterwards, making The Fall his final piece of fiction.
Through these three novels, as well as his other works, Camus establishes and explores several ideas of his philosophy. In many ways, The Fall can be seen as the high point of Camus’s thinking. His ideas increase in complexity over the course of his novels. You’ll probably notice that interpreting and analyzing The Plague is more difficult than taking on The Stranger, and likewise, The Fall is more challenging than the works which precede it. But don’t take our word for it. Sartre himself said that The Fall was the most beautiful of Camus’s works, but also the least understood. Scholar David R. Ellison says "it seems as if no real progress has been made in deciphering the text’s central enigmas." For you, this is good news and bad. The bad news is no one can tell you with any real authority exactly how to interpret The Fall. The good news is you can interpret it however you want.
You may find it helpful to read Camus’s novels in the order in which they were written. It’s fascinating to see the way his ideas grow over time, and it’s also useful to gain some experience with Camus before you tackle his final work of fiction. Still, if you haven’t read The Stranger or The Plague, don’t worry; we’ll get you through The Fall unscathed, or at least with only minor injuries.
The Fall explores one of Albert Camus’s mind-boggling beliefs: we are each responsible. For everything. During his day, the World War II era, according to Camus, everyone living was at fault for the war. If they didn’t directly cause it, then it was their fault for not stopping it.
Do you realize what that would mean for you? Global warming? Your fault. Hunger? Poverty? Violence? Guilty, guilty, and, guilty.
Whether you buy into the argument or not, it’s an interesting line of logic to consider. Suppose, for a moment, that it’s true, that you are responsible, radically, for everything. If this is the case, what can you possibly do about it? And for some, this is the more important question: how can you possibly escape the shame and guilt? That’s where The Fall and its narrator come in. Forget fixing the world’s problems, he says – let’s just work on making ourselves feel better. How could such an individual exist? Come back when you’re done reading. We guarantee your index finger will feel a little less pointy.
Listen to the first monologue of The Fall…in the original language.
A photo of Albert Camus
Study Questions and Other Helpful Insights
A site for a course called "Lawyers and Literature," this is a fascinating look at The Fall from a lawyer’s point of view. The questions will get you thinking, if nothing else…
Downloadable Text of The Fall
The O’Brien translation. Great except for the typo on page seven that says that locusts "never earned [Jean-Baptiste] a son [sic]" instead of "never earned [Jean-Baptiste] a sou" (sou = money). Man did that confuse us for the longest time.
"Camus" and "pop culture" in the same title?
We’re just beside ourselves with joy.
More of the same idea…
But this one is a bit more extensive and jargon-y.